The fourth Canada Cup is history, leaving a sense of euphoria in its wake across Canada, once again comforted by the knowledge that it is the No. 1 hockey country in the world.

When the celebration is over, however, it is inevitable that the joy be replaced by sadness, because hockey fans must accept the fact that it will be at least three years before they once again see hockey played at such a level of excellence.

The next confrontation between the Soviet Union and the cream of the National Hockey League is likely to come in 1990, along the lines of the 1972 Super Series, with four games in North America and four in the Soviet Union.

Details are still being discussed, but the desire of Wayne Gretzky, who usually gets his way, is for both the United States and Canada to be represented on the NHL club and for two games to be played in the United States and two in Canada. Hartford already is seeking one contest, with Philadelphia another likely choice.

Another Canada Cup may come along in 1992, but it is obvious that only the Soviets are a crowd attraction for Canada/NHL. Organizers do not want another Canada-Sweden final, such as they had in 1984, and the specter of a Soviet-Czechoslovakia final brought lumps to a lot of throats when the Czechs led Canada, 2-0, at midgame of the semifinal.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets felt the same way. Igor Dimitriev, the Soviet assistant coach, angered the Czechs when he said after Canada had rallied to win, "We were very excited with the first period. We wanted to play the final with the Canadians."

Certainly, the Soviets reached a higher level of play in the Canada Cup final than they have in recent world championships, where they have won only one of the last three. And the Soviets brought out the best in Canada, by far.

Gretzky was at his best, collecting three goals and 18 assists in nine games. His principal passing target, Mario Lemieux, had 11 goals and seven assists.

"The main thing I got out of the series is that Gretzky and Lemieux are the best pair in the history of international hockey," said Jean Perron, the Montreal coach who assisted Mike Keenan behind Canada's bench. "They gave us unbelievable emotion in this series."

Some other players boosted their credentials, notably Washington defenseman Larry Murphy, who was named to the NHL's second all-star team in June and then proved that he belongs at the highest level of competition.

During the three-game final series, Murphy collected a goal and four assists and was on the ice for only two of the Soviets' 16 goals. By contrast, Norris Trophy-winner Ray Bourque, an all-tournament selection, managed only a goal and two assists and was on the ice for eight Soviet goals.

Murphy assisted on Lemieux's game winner in the second overtime Sunday and was part of the three-man rush that culminated in Lemieux's decisive score Tuesday.

"I laid back early in the series, but the last couple of games they called on me for some offense, especially on the power play," Murphy said. "I've had a lot of experience playing them and I wasn't surprised by the things they did. I think that helped me. It was a great feeling not only to be part of winning, but to know that I contributed to it."